Who gets to determine whether you are a legitimate artist?

“Stacey, I didn’t know you are an artist” was the response I recently received after talking about the art installation of wooden “AdventureMobiles” I created over the summer.  More telling was my hesitant reply.  Do I identify with the label “artist”? Who gets to determine whether I am “good enough” to be a legitimate artist?  How do I rephrase all these self-doubts into questions of wonder that help make the journey to answers an adventure?

4 adventure mobiles at dusk at Burning Man

My AdventureMobiles art installation at Burning Man 2018 (in front of my camp, with their interpretation of the New York City skyline) Photo: David Katz

Dare I call myself an artist?

Burning Man website making me feel a legitimate artist

Burning Man website showing my registered art

The poet Mark Nepo stated in an interviewNotice we are being told to become a noun and the vitality of life is in staying a verb.”  Although I have always been called creative or artistic (adjectives), and I’ve always enjoyed the process of making art (verb), I’ve never before gone to the step of being identified as an artist (noun) until I became a registered artist with Burning Man.

I found myself alternating between the joy of calling myself an artist, and the self-doubts that others – whom I saw as long-identifying themselves as artists – would call me a phony.  I could hear the inner critic in my head downplaying my work.  “It’s derivative”; “it’s pop art”; “it’s not evocative of deep, dark emotions or would inspire people to feel anything in response to the art pieces.”

Instead of derivative, it’s inspired.  I had volunteers who helped me fabricate this art installation.  During that time, I spoke with a woman who deals with a lot of artists.  This volunteer helped me see that the art I was creating was not mimicking the original art because his were small, mass produced pieces or flat paintings.  Seeing a basic wood bench, and imagining it as something bigger and more creative, is inspired.

Marc Tetro little NYC pop art taxi against plywood cut out

Pop artist Marc Tetro’s little NYC taxi was my inspiration for the big Adventure Mobile installation

Pop art is still art.  One of my favorite artists, Andy Warhol, was a leading figure in pop art. He helped change how people appreciate art.  He’s definitely considered a legitimate artist.

Registered artist posing with a friend behind the Adventure Taxi art at placement on playa at Burning Man

As they say, everyone needs that friend who says “we’re going on an adventure!”

People engaged and responded emotionally to this art installation.  Most of the team who helped me fabricate and build the AdventureMobiles felt pride in doing their part.

One young woman learned a new skill, and found some confidence that comes from being able to use power tools.  Another person said the fact that the art had a distinct New York feel to them made her feel safe during a hard transition time.

Legitimate artist, Stacey, on playa directing two volunteers working on Adventure Taxi at Burning Man

Here I am, directing two volunteers to set up my art. They were so encouraging, and helped me learn more life lessons.

A young lover came up to me to explain how watching a sunrise through the taxi windows with her beloved was a cherished memory she will hold onto for a long time.  A fellow camper enjoyed moving the taxis (with my permission) so they would be in different traffic patterns, in a sense pranking those who expected the cabs to be lined up in a row.  Another camper enjoyed putting them back into a row.

My favorite story is about a young mom, whose name also happens to be Stacey.  She wanted to meet me because her elder son, Connor (same name as my first born!) insisted every morning of going out to the cabs to play on them.  He enjoyed them so much, she wanted to learn more.

After meeting her, I hope she builds her own version for him to play on!  While speaking with Stacey, what I realized is that love, fun and joy are emotions/feelings evoked by my art.  Those are just as important as any “dark” emotion that my inner critic wants me think “only count.”

3 young women playing on Adventure Mobile Taxi at Burning Man

random ‘burners’ (Burning Man participants) laughing and playing

Couple salsa dancing by Adventure Taxis at Burning Man

A joy to see a Couple salsa dancing by my registered art at Burning Man. In the background are other art installations and that year’s temple.

instagram post by Jones Around the World showing image of taxi art installation at Burning Man

A world-traveled photographer enjoyed my art! “Loved these!! Well done, and thanks for sharing!!” (original photo by @jonesaroundtheworld )

group posing for selfies on two of the Adventure Mobiles at Burning Man

This group loved playing on the cabs (Photo by Becki Kirkham)

Young woman with long hair standing on windows of taxi cab art at Burning Man

Kids, big and small, love climbing the art (photo courtesy of Anais Marilyn)

Could I sell my art?

One of the things I like to say about having an Adventure Attitude is to let go of the outcome, because you never know what will come up.  Unintended consequences, one could say.  I started this process for the wonder of creating art, not for feeding my self-esteem.

My ego was boosted by being able to say I am a registered artist with an installation at Burning Man.  I felt special being among other Burning Man artists, many whom had much bigger installations or were more prominent by being featured in key Burning Man places. I felt like a legitimate artist.  The biggest bragging right was that a company wanted to buy my art!

daytime view of registered art at Burning Man, with the Man in backgroung

View of my art on playa. The Man (of Burning Man) can be seen on the horizon

I was approached before I went to the desert to set up my art installation by a real estate company.  They are planning to create a pop-up container park in a trendy neighborhood in Philadelphia.  They thought my taxi cabs would be a hip (dare I say hipster?) addition.

The client had never been to Burning Man, so she didn’t realize the condition the art would be when it leaves the desert (dusty, dried out, possibly broken for different reasons).  Aside from the fact my camp paid for the materials for my art (so they, in my opinion, own it), these AdventureMobiles would not be safe for a family park.  I convinced her that custom made art would be better, and she agreed.

Another ego boost.  That inner voice started up again, which is why I didn’t tell many people that someone liked my art enough to want to buy it.

My parents are creative.  My mom always called herself an artist, and she has a volume of art to show for this.  My biological father went through a phase where he wanted to be an artist, and I have scant memories of him selling some of his welded copper candle holders.  I have to admit, a part of me wanted to “please” or impress them by selling a “big” art piece.  My inner critic also convinced me that it would validate me for having left my successful corporate career.  I became attached to the outcome.

nighttime view of adventure mobiles lit up with fireworks and full moon in sky

LED lit up AdventureMobiles. I had to learn how to light up my art, so they wouldn’t be run over in the dark nights. The real estate company had me revise a proposal to include lighting, at one point.

I’ve sold other art creations in my life.  Wire-wrapped sea glass jewelry I hand-crafted were sold at a small gift store.  Years earlier I sold a photograph.  But this would be big.  It would be a bigger adventure, a new learning process.  A way to make a new revenue stream. However, the real estate company (after three revisions to my proposal), decided to “go in a different direction.”

After a lifetime in sales, this kind of response isn’t new.  However, this time my ego was attached, I had expectations beyond money, and felt disappointed.

Until I shifted my point of view.  The Universe has other plans for me.  The time and energy I would have spent on this project is needed elsewhere.  Besides, it was fun to not just be asked, but seriously considered.  I took the risk, learned along the way, and in the end – let go of the outcome.

A legitimate artist?

Who gets to determine if you’re a legitimate artist?  Does having an MFA decreed it? Does selling your art pieces make you that more real?  Does having a burning passion that eclipses all else mean you’re more of an artist than someone who does it as an outlet?

In my opinion, the world doesn’t determine who is or is not legitimate.  The world has often turned its noses against artists who then became famous after their deaths.  Having a degree may help you get a job or learn skills, but a certificate is a piece of paper.  Only you can determine if you’re an artist.

Someone who falls in love with the craft, who connects with this inner calling to express themselves.

If someone asks me again if I’m an artist, maybe I’ll respond in a way that shifts from the noun to the verb.  Yes, I love to create art and to wonder where it may take me next.




Share in the comments your thoughts on what makes an artist legitimate.  Or if you identify as an artist (noun) or verb (artistic)?

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  1. Lisa Stimpson

    Thank you! You have convinced me to consider myself and artist! Although my art is in it’s infancy :).

    • Stacey Newman Weldon

      I agree! You are an artist! I am pleased that you have created custom pieces for me!!

  2. Eliza Spear

    On the most recent Burning Man podcast I heard “The artifact is not the art. The artifact is residual proof the art happened”. You arted with others and the taxis are the artifact.


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